England have won the Ashes series as they were expected to, though not by the margin many anticipated. They deserved their victory and everything that goes with this, including the congratulations of opposing fans - like me. I don't begrudge these one bit. England have the better players and make more of the cricketing talents currently at their disposal than Australia do of theirs. They also seem more 'together' as a team. So, congratulations to England on their 3-0 victory. Two draws seem about right for the degree of fight that Australia managed to muster over the series as a whole, and three defeats accurately reflect the disparity between the two sides. I don't foresee Australia turning a corner any time soon, though I'd like to be wrong about this.
All that said, I want to strike a dissenting note regarding the praise Michael Clarke has received for his 'generous' declaration yesterday. One of the things I think needs to change before Australia do turn an Ashes corner is that they need to find a better, tougher captain. A Test captain, of course, is reliant on the quality of the players he leads, and Clarke doesn't have the collection of talents that Border, Taylor and Steve Waugh had from 1989 onwards. Nowhere near. But a captain who, already 3-0 down, hands the opposition a chance of victory in the way Clarke did at the Oval shouldn't be in charge any longer than it takes to find a suitable replacement for him.
One of the reasons Test match cricket has been the great game it is (on my conception of it anyway) is because each side tries as best it can to win while making it as hard as possible for the opposition to do so. It isn't about making charitable declarations that give the opposing team a chance where otherwise it would have none, even if this does set up an exciting run chase that will entertain spectators. If that is the form of 'entertainment' wanted, there are enough shorter forms of the game where it can be had, a bun fight any day of the week which has all the attraction of being pretty much like the last one, and the one before that, and the one before that.
In Test cricket according to its best traditions, and this includes Ashes cricket, everything won has to be earned. Clarke seems to have entertained the notion that it was more important for Australia to win the Oval Test than it was not to lose it - or at least this is what he thought until the prospect of their losing it loomed up as a likelihood, as if he couldn't have foreseen that this might well happen. But the better of two draws has to be preferable to a 4-0 scoreline and that is what Clarke risked. There will always be plenty of voices, especially on the other side, to applaud such generosity. It was the same at Headingley in 2001 when acting Australian captain Adam Gilchrist forfeited a game that Australia at that point could not lose, by making a soft declaration. In the game just concluded, some half of the 15 Australian wickets to fall in the two innings were lost while Australia were trying to push the run rate along to get a result, when they could have been shutting England out.
I am perfectly well aware of the logic according to which you improve your own chances of winning by giving your opponents a chance of winning, so tempting them into risk and error. But it isn't always true. It is just as much the case that a team will often fold up when it is staring over a precipice: when its only realistic alternatives are the draw and the deep drop. In today's Times Mike Atherton says (£): 'Clarke's declaration was brave and generous - whether it was doing his fragile young team any good is another matter'. Quite so. Except not brave, merely foolhardy.